Welcome back to the reread of Servant of the Empire by Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts. Provide your own marching song; we’re off to war. Check the iron is off before you leave, and don’t get sand in your desert boots.
Chapter 11: The Desert
SUMMARY: The Acoma forces march out to war—they travel to the seaport of Jamar by water barge, which Kevin finds fascinating as it opens his eyes to a whole new subset of Tsurani culture.
He and Mara get into a debate about the differences between the Khardengo, a Tsurani culture of travelling musicians, and the Midkemian gypsies whom she believes to be very dishonourable from what she has heard of them. (Hello, casual problematic cultural trope, welcome to the party!) Kevin tries to explain the difference between borrowing and stealing, only to discover that the Tsurani have no concept of borrowing at all, only ritualised gift-giving.
Kevin is particularly curious to see the city people that he doesn’t normally see on Mara’s estate—the seedy underbelly of the city, the ordinary workers, and the poor. Once he catches sight of the slave pens, however, he loses his good mood and enthusiasm. Amazing how being owned by someone else can put the dampener on an otherwise good day.
The slave issue continues to be very noticeable as they hop aboard the ship that will be taking them to Dustari—with its many rows of slaver oars as well as sails.
Kevin gets seasick and Mara does not: she claims that sex is a good cure for it, and manages to distract him from the problem.
They reach Ilama, one of the cities of Dustari, marking Kevin’s first time on a different continent of Kelewan. He notices some cosmetic differences to this city, such as the architecture being mostly stone rather than wood-and-paper.
To Mara’s surprise, Lord Chipino of the Xacatecas, Ruling Lord of his family, has left his war camp in order to greet her. This is an honour above and beyond what is expected, and requires her to perform a quick change into an even fancier outfit.
You know the situation is hardcore when Mara has to crack out the copper sequins.
Lord Chipino turns out to be a feisty old dude with quite a sense of humour—he is well aware that this is all part of some elaborate scheme of Desio’s, and he does not intend to be used as a pawn. He and Mara swap intelligence. The most concerning detail right now is that the raiders from Tsubar are getting more numerous and aggressive, and no one knows why.
(No one but us, dear readers—I knew that getting to listen in on all of Desio’s admin planning meetings would pay off eventually)
Indeed, as they all set out for the war camp after rest and refreshment, they are attacked by raiders. This at least gives the cho-ja something fun to do. Lord Chipino requests no live prisoners to be taken, so the cho-ja disembowel the raiders with frightening efficiency while the humans stand around and pretend that’s not really, REALLY disturbing.
There is no logic behind the attacks; they often come even when the raiders are obviously a poor match for those they attack.
Time jump! They’ve now been at the war camp for many, many months, and nothing much has changed—the raiders are still raiding, and getting themselves killed randomly, and everything else makes about as much sense. There have been no proper battles, just a whole lot of the military equivalent of mosquito stings. It’s getting annoying.
Kevin is still at Mara’s side, offering advice and mostly getting everyone else to listen to him too, when he has something to offer. Today is not that day. Mara puts a new strategy to him—they want to try to find and destroy the supply caches of the raiders.
It all seems pretty suspicious to Kevin, and he suggests that it’s no skin off their nose if the raiders keep throwing themselves at them in a form of ritual suicide—why go to extra trouble?
Mara argues the point, as she and the other Tsurani are convinced that the raiders are stupid and ignorant. Kevin is pretty sure there is a method behind the madness. He’s basically the only one in the tent who isn’t culturally conditioned to equate barbarian/savage = brainless animal.
Mara ignores Kevin’s advice. He doesn’t take offence, knowing that the long absence from home and her son has worn hard on her, and she is desperate to finish this campaign. He’s still pretty sure it’s a trap, though.
After three months of sending scouts to search the foothills, and fruitlessly interrogating raiders, Mara and Chipino have still failed to find the supplies cache of the raiders. Chipino believes that the supplies must be stashed somewhere in the deep desert, and they need to take a couple of companies of soldiers out in the sands.
Kevin does his silent ‘it’s a trap’ dance with his eyebrows and no one believes him. It’s a Shakespearian tragedy waiting to happen.
Mara and Chipino negotiate over the resources they will both contribute to this adventure—he uses her contribution of extra cho-ja warriors as an excuse to give her a gift, a beautiful copper bracelet. Mara is not sure why he would do such a thing, as it makes little political sense. Kevin tries to explain that it is possible for people to admire each other and try to do nice things for those they care about without there being a political reason for it. She gives him a baffled smile.
Hilariously, taking their armed troops into the desert also means carting most of their stuff along too, including tents, beds and other luxuries. There are no four star hotels in the desert, so they have to bring their own.
As they travel, Kevin continues to nurture his bad feeling (it’s a trap) that they have been set up to bring an army this far into the desert (so a trap) and the only reason to do that (much trap) is if their enemies have an even bigger army waiting for them (trap ahoy).
Mara is convinced that nomads cannot be bribed (despite only recently learning she was wrong in this regard about the cho-ja who are totally up for being bribed any time) and that there is no reason to worry.
That bad feeling in Kevin’s stomach only gets worse as they face off against the nomads—a much smaller force than their own, apparently caught unaware.
Seriously, how much more obvious can it be? Trap central. Trap city. Trapalooza. Traaaaaap.
COMMENTARY: As ever, travel in these books is used as an excuse to delve into the layered worldbuilding, and build up a sense of the Exotic Other. Spices, smells, silk, costume, social rituals and other clues are all mixed up together to paint a luxurious picture of the world they inhabit, while they move from place to place. The authors have chosen Kevin as the point of view character for these scenes which allows the reader to appreciate what is different and unusual about this world.
I do find it fascinating that Kevin’s world is such a Default Western Fantasyland that his perspective really does serve as a realistic entry point for the reader, and we don’t have to be told anything other than ‘hey, gypsies’ or ‘huh, ladies in long dresses’ to get a picture of where he comes from, and what perspective he holds.
It also kind of explains why I found the books actually set in Midkemia so dreadfully boring. Tsurani may have its own share of problematic cultural/racial tropes, and the Empire trilogy does have a strong vibe of ‘look how fancy we are with our colourful Eastern plumage’ but ultimately it’s still rare to see a fantasy world which is in conversation with the Default Magical Kingdom but takes its cultural influences so strongly from cultures other than Western Europe in the Middle Ages.
I didn’t mention Isashani, wife of Chipino, in the main summary, though she is referenced several times. I am pretty sure that we all love Isashani. I particularly like that, despite being completely long distance from the war camp, she is nevertheless attempting to set up Mara with Hokanu because obviously, the lady needs a husband.
Having recently started watching The West Wing, I am reminded that the first time we met the First Lady played by Stockard Channing, she was trying to set CJ up with a hot doctor. I think she and Isashani would have got along really well.
Chipino is notable as one of the rare Tsurani Lords who is actually quite a nice person, and not entirely manipulative all the time. It’s always such a relief when Mara makes a new friend that she can rely on, considering how few people she had in her corner when the story started.
Kevin’s progression is interesting—this chapter is mostly from his point of view, taking us through a couple of major time jumps, and suddenly we have another year added on to his relationship with Mara, a year of very little interpersonal conflict, and an active sex life. They’re an established couple now, with no one raising an eyebrow about his presence in war rooms or in Mara’s bed—he’s treated, it seems, much in the way that a valued and respected concubine of a male Ruling Lord might be. An exception to their social norms, perhaps, but inspiring no scandal.
As for Kevin himself, he has mellowed like whoa in the last year. He doesn’t get as angry or impatient about the system. He might be treated like Mara’s boyfriend most of the time, but his slave status still affects the ability for him to be heard—Mara and Chipino listen to his advice but do not value his perspective above their own preconceptions.
Still, for all his frustrations, Kevin is learning to work with the system rather than against it—both he and Mara have learned how to soften each other’s stresses and rough edges. Considering how they got started, it’s a surprisingly healthy relationship.
Yes, okay. I like Kevin now. Whatever. Don’t mock me.
Tansy Rayner Roberts is an Australian fantasy author, blogger and podcaster. She won the 2013 Hugo for Best Fan Writer. Tansy has a PhD in Classics, which she drew upon for her short story collection Love and Romanpunk. Her latest fiction project is Musketeer Space, a gender-swapped space opera retelling of The Three Musketeers, published weekly as a web serial. Come and find her on Twitter!<!–<!–!